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This parasha is very different from the previous five, as it has very little narrative. Instead it contains a whole series of laws on a wide range of issues, including those relating to the damages (fines) to be paid if an offence is committed. It ends very differently with Moses going up Mount Sinai to receive the Two Tablets and the Torah. He remains there forty days and forty nights.

Another voice

Mishpatim by Rachel Keren :: 5768

Rachel Keren is head of 'Kolech' - the orthodox feminist organisation in Israel. Born to Ephraim z"l Urbach and Chanah - scholarly parents who sparked her love for Torah - she graduated from Hebrew University and taught Jewish studies in Israel and abroad for many years, especially in Midreshet Ein Hanatziv - a yeshiva for women.

The purpose of the Exodus from Egypt, as described in the Torah, is for us not to be enslaved to another human being, but rather to serve God: "For the children of Israel are servants to Me, they are My servants, whom I have taken out of the land of Egypt - I am Hashem your God." (Leviticus 25:55). The continuous reminder of the Exodus from Egypt is explained by Prof. Nehama Leibovitz as follows: "The memory of the experience of slavery is meant to shape our relationships with our fellow man, and to create within us awareness and empathy for his suffering, to understand what slavery means, and how deep the humiliation of slavery is."

Therefore the enslavement of a Jewish man or woman is completely undesirable!

Parshat Mishpatim opens with the mitzvot dealing with the subjugation of a Jewish slave to another Jew. There are two ways in which this can happen: the sale of a man who has been convicted of thieving by the Bet Din, or a man who is selling himself due to a difficult financial situation. Another possibility is a father selling his daughter as a slave - to be a Jewish bondswoman - in order to receive payment for her. A person selling himself, the sale of a person by a Bet Din and a sale of a daughter by her father clearly contradict the point made above: - that we are servants of God.

Were there actually Jewish slaves?

My honoured father, Ephraim A. Orbach z"l discussed this question extensively in his article "The laws of slavery as a source for social history in the Second Temple period and the times of the Mishnah and Talmud". The existence of an abundance of laws in all periods that deal with the status of slaves and concubines is evidence of the extreme interest in the issue, not just as a theoretical discussion but also in relation to an existing reality - also evidenced by other laws that mention, in passing, the existence of Jewish slaves and concubines in Jewish homes, and those who sell themselves into slavery by choice.

It seems that there was a great discrepancy between the self-criticism on the subject of humans enslaving other humans, and a reality in which people were subjugated as slaves. It is this gap that the mitzvot that deal with slavery, and which limit the extent of the subjugation of the slave, are striving to address.

The issue is especially pertinent in the case of the Jewish bondswoman. This is the most infuriating case in the issue of enslavement, as she is sold due to no personal blame and not by her own choice. The girl is her father's property and he sells her in order to improve his financial situation - "if a man will sell his daughter...". We can already understand from the actual verses how the Torah tries to both minimize and moderate this phenomenon.

The Torah imposes obligations on the Master towards his bondswoman. The interpretation of this obligation is as follows: her sustenance, her clothing, this is decent treatment, or the fulfillment of her needs.

"And if he does not perform these three for her" - this does not refer to "sustenance, clothing, or decent treatment" as these are obligations in which he has no choice. Rather, as the Midrash Mechilta explains: "these three: to take her for yourself, for your son, or redeem her"! And from this we can explain the Torah verse: if he does not take her for himself, that is, if she is not redeemed from slavery by marriage either to him or to his son, then the bondswoman is free and with no payment for her redemption: "she shall leave free of charge, without payment".

The Torah thus takes care of the future and the status of the girl who was sold as a bondswoman. Nevertheless, despite the restrictions, the sale of girls into slavery was a common phenomenon, as we can learn from the Tosefta.

We can interpret from this that people would even sell their daughters in order to become wealthy (and even buy slaves with the money obtained from selling their daughters!), and not just out of necessity.

From the laws we can learn how our sages sought to discourage this kind of behaviour.

• " a man can sell his daughter but a woman cannot sell her daughter" (this is in order to prevent a widow from "getting rid of" her daughters that have become a financial burden); • "If a man will sell his daughter" - this refers to a "minor" ... the right to sell her is limited until the age of puberty • a girl can be freed under a variety of conditions: reaching maturity, after six years and on the Yovel (every fifty years), and when her master dies.

From the above, we learn how the Torah deals with a phenomenon which in its very essence is negative, but was part of the economic reality. The foundation of these laws are the restriction of the rights of one man over another man's freedom and life, and the definition of his obligations to those enslaved to him.

Today, although on the surface it appears that the reality in which we live is different, and we do not see ourselves as slave owners, we do still have much to learn from the Torah's attitude towards an ethically challenging economic reality. We must implement this knowledge in our attitude on the correct treatment of foreign workers, which are abundantly present in Israel, and we should help to publicize their plight, and stand up for the preservation of their rights and dignity.


More by Rachel Keren

Another voice by Emma Rozenberg

In this week's sedra we read that only Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and seventy of Israel's elders ascended Mount Sinai to see a vision of the God of Israel. The rest of the people remained below. Not only this but, before they have even heard most of the Law, the children of Israel declare "naaseh v'nishma" – we will do and we will understand. They vow to uphold a law that has not yet been passed down to them.

How were the Israelites able to commit to, and trust in, a God they had not seen and a Torah they had not yet received? As a lawyer, this seemed perplexing. I was trained never to take instructions from someone I haven't met, and would certainly never agree to a document I hadn't read!

On the other hand I can understand this as a mother. Just as a new-born baby already knows and completely trusts her mother whom she has never seen before, so too the fledgling people of Israel have total faith in God. They do not need to see God to feel His presence and his love, nor must they be taught every word of the Torah to know that His words will guide them through a beautiful but bewildering world.


More by Emma Rozenberg

Other Divrei Torah on Mishpatim

  • 5766 (Jonah Steinberg)
  • 5766 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5767 (Mike Hollander)
  • 5767 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5769 (Jonah Steinberg)
  • 5769 (David Stern)
  • 5770 (Elliott Malamet)
  • 5770 (David Aaronson)
  • 5771 (Roni Tabick)
  • 5771 (Taste of Limmud Team)
  • 5772 (Haim Shalom)
  • 5773 (Daniel Goldfarb)
  • 5773 (Juliet Landau-Pope)
  • 5774 (Karen Radkowsky)
  • 5774 (Taste of Chavruta)
  • 5775 (Shelley Marsh)
  • 5775 (Ellen Flax)